May 2009

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Arvin Scott

Patent power

UGA inventions bring in money for the university and raise the institution's profile in research circles

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Patent power

Scott Shamp

Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs and…professors at UGA? Many people don’t know it, but some of the same faculty members who educate thenext generation of Georgia’s leaders are also prolific inventors.

According to the non-profit Association of University Technology Managers, UGA is among the top U.S. universities when it comes to licensing faculty inventions and discoveries. The UGA Research Foundation Inc. (UGARF), a non-profit organization created 30 years ago to support the university’s research mission, earned nearly $24 million in licensing revenue in 2008 alone.

Much of that revenue plants the seeds for tomorrow’s discoveries and innovations. The first $10,000 of net revenue goes to the inventor. Of the additional funds the inventor receives 25 percent, the inventor’s research program receives 10 percent and the inventor’s department or unit receives 10 percent. The remaining 55 percent goes to UGARF to support promising faculty research.

“Going from discovery to commercialization is a complex and painstaking process that takes a lot of time,” says Sohail Malik, director of UGARF’s Technology Commercialization Office. “But we take pride in disseminating technologies that benefit the public while at the same time bringing revenue to the university to support research.”

UGARF has more than 700 active patents in fields as diverse as agriculture, biotechnology and engineering. Here are a few of the people behind the innovations.

SCOTT SHAMP: New possibilities for new media

The bits and bytes that undergird technology don’t excite UGA New Media Institute Director Scott Shamp, but the possibilities that come with new technologies certainly do.

“We’re not interested in building technology from the bits up—there are other places that are going to do that,” says Shamp (ABJ ’81, MA ’83), a professor in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. “What we do here is explore how technologies can be combined in new and interesting ways.”

In his office, Shamp proudly displays a framed patent certificate for his “cloud in a box” technology, which he and graduate students created in 2003 to facilitate communication within a wireless zone. A business district that offers wireless Internet access, for example, could provide a listing of shops and restaurants or even alert users to sales or lunch specials for that day. If the user is not logged on to his or her computer, the system can push messages or ads to their cell phone.

Shamp has three additional patents pending. One technology delivers movie trailers to the cell phones of theater-goers. If you’ve just seen “The Dark Knight, ” for instance, you’d get previews for other superhero or action/adventure movies. Another technology allows museum visitors to use their cell phones to get information about the exhibit they’re viewing. The system he’s most excited about—created with his mother in mind—allows users wearing a radio-frequency id bracelet to see pictures uploaded by their friends and family on a specially designed digital frame.

“She could see a photo that I took two minutes ago on my cell phone,” Shamp says. “Now that’s pretty cool.”

DAVID CHU: Dreams of new treatments

When David Chu says creating new drugs is a 24-hour job, he's not exaggerating. Designing new molecules to thwart the replication of viruses such as hepatitis and HIV is creative work, but there are times when solutions elude him. He's been known to wake up from dreams with an idea and then scramble in the dark to find pen and paper so that he can get it down before it escapes him.

"I still have those kinds of dreams," says Chu, distinguished research professor emeritus in the College of Pharmacy.

About 95 percent of drug development results in disappointment, Chu says. Often molecules envisioned in a flash of insight can't be created in the lab. Sometimes new compounds are created but aren't effective against the virus. Sometimes compounds that are promising in animal studies turn out to be useless in humans.

"You're lucky if you can come up with one compound in your lifetime that gains FDA approval," Chu says. "I haven't reached that point yet, but hopefully I will."

His most promising opportunities are in antiviral research directed towards the treatment of HIV and Hepatitis B.

"This work is difficult and time consuming," Chu says. "But it's also very rewarding to see my ideas translated into drugs that can help patients."

JOY DORAN PETERSON: Waste not, want not

Joy Doran Peterson tends to get one of two responses when she tells people she’s looking for more efficient ways to produce ethanol.

“Most people think it’s a good idea,” the professor of microbiology says, “but sometimes people have very strong opinions about food crops being used to produce ethanol.”

Fortunately, Peterson has no interest in turning food into fuel. Working with former graduate student Sarah Kate Brandon (MS ’08) and Professor Mike Eiteman, Peterson has developed a process that dramatically increases the amount of ethanol that refineries can produce from non-food plants such as switchgrass, corn stalks and even yard clippings. The team has developed a similar process for pine and other wood, which is especially important to Georgia’s $18.5 billion forestry industry. “Having a renewable energy source that boosts employment in our state, that is better for the environment and that uses low-value or waste materials is a win-win for everybody,” says Peterson, the director of the university’s Biofuels, Biopower and Biomaterials Initiative. Her process pre-treats plant material with hot water under pressure before exposing it to enzymes and genetically engineered bacteria that digest and ferment the material to create ethanol. The process eliminates the need for harsh chemicals that would otherwise be necessary and creates sought-after byproducts that can be used as flavor enhancers, in cosmetics and for their anti-microbial activities. “You could almost pay for your whole process if you could get those compounds in a recoverable form and sell them,” Peterson says. “Economically and environmentally, it’s very powerful.”

SCOTT NESMITH: Blueberries delight

Scott NeSmith (BS ’83, MS ’86) grew up on a farm in South Georgia and understands the challenges that the state’s farmers face.

“Rural economies are largely based on agriculture,” the professor of horticulture says, “and blueberries are one of the bright spots that are increasing in value and sustaining communities where some of the more traditional commodities like tobacco are declining.”

In 2005, blueberries surpassed one of Georgia’s best known crops—peaches—in value, and their acreage around the state continues to grow. Last year, blueberries brought $75 million in revenue to Georgia farmers, a tremendous increase from just a decade ago, when the crop was valued at $10 million.

Nesmith has created six patented blueberry varieties, each the result of a 12-year selective breeding process in which only the top two plants derived from an initial group of 3,000 make it to the fields. Among other things, he’s looking for berries that have just the right combination of sweetness, acidity and visual appeal for the consumer. With input from farmers, he also selects for bushes that are hearty and produce plenty of fruit that can be easily harvested and withstand shipping.

“The varieties that we’re developing are going right into the hands of farmers,” NeSmith says. “It’s research that’s impacting people’s lives.”

Get More

For a searchable list of UGA technologies available for licensing, visit http://www.ovpr.uga.edu/tco/industry/technologies.

About the Author

Sam Fahmy is the science writer for the UGA News Service.